February 26, 2010

Rick Reilly Insults Female Athletes

In his latest column for ESPN, Rick Reilly says that we've just witnessed "the greatest moment in women's sports history," and his column is devoted to questioning why this event has not received greater attention among sports fans or the media. What is this great event, you might ask? Kelly Kulick won a bowling tournament, beating the best in men's bowling. It's ridiculous to label that victory as the greatest moment in women's sports history, and further it's clearly insulting to women, especially female athletes.

Kelly Kulick celebrating her victory. (AP Photo)

First, is bowling a sport in which males enjoy a natural physical or mental advantage over females? Well, let's consider the areas where men might have such an advantage: overall strength and musculature, speed and maybe quickness, or size. Bowling does not require any of these, only requiring a walk of maybe 10 yards repeated about 15 times per game for the best bowlers. This is followed by a swing of the arm in rhythm, while holding a ball of 10-20 pounds, and then a precise release with the right speed and spin. All of this requires great concentration and practice and skill, but are women really handicapped somehow in these capacities? Reilly summarizes the qualities required as endurance, brains, strength, and will. I am not stupid enough to argue that women are less capable than men in items 1, 2, or 4, and could easily write a full post on reasons women could be superior in each of those. So that leaves only strength, and I would argue that being able to "throw a 15-pound ball at 17 mph, 18 times a game, for 90 games, over six days, averaging 226" is much more about endurance than strength. Most women who work out can roll (not overhand throw across a baseball field) a 15 pound ball, just as well as a man. And further, the slight difference in velocity that might differentiate men from women isn't going to help your bowling score that much. Justine Henin doesn't have to hit as hard as Serena Williams to win grand slam tournaments and be ranked #1 in the world.

This historical moment has received little recognition primarily because it's bowling. No one cares. ESPN shows it at 1 pm on Sundays in the fall, what else is on then? As the winner of this grand Tournament of Champions, Kelly won $40K. Granted it's not all about the money, but I think most professional sports pay a little more than that to the champ. I'm not trying to take away from Kelly's accomplishment, she is the best bowler in the country (or maybe world) this week, no qualifications or sneers required. But we're still talking about bowling.

And finally and most importantly, Rick's ridiculous claim is insulting to all the other female athletes, women in general, and even sports fans. There are so many examples of greater moments in women's sports that I'm sure I can't name them all, but here's a sampling of the types of events that are clearly more historic:

1. A victory that starts a league: Remember a few years ago when that US soccer team won some tournament and that player took her shirt off? Well most sports fans noticed and still remember the names of some of the players from that team: Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Fowdy, and I promise I didn't google that. And then a women's soccer league started in the US, a country that couldn't care less about soccer. That game and that tournament garnered so much national attention that businessmen were willing to invest millions of dollars in women's soccer. People believed in the future popularity of a women's sport, even soccer in the US. Now that's a great moment. I won't remember Kelly's name in 2 months, and I'm pretty sure we're not going to see new bowling leagues in the wake of this event.

2. National pride and playing through the pain: Remember that Olympics when the gymnast had a bum ankle and could hardly walk, but then nailed a vault to clinch the gold for the US, and got carried off by her coach? Talk about a great moment, how about overcoming adversity in the form of crippling pain to come through for your teammates who are depending on you? How about winning the gold for your country, for their first team gold? I don't think anyone will ever forget the image of Kerri Strug in Bela's arms.

3. Perfection: How many Romanian athletes have you ever heard of? I bet you've heard of Nadia Comaneci and her perfect 10, just another example of a great performance popularizing the entire sport and entering the history books.

So why is Reilly's claim insulting? Because a victory over the guys in a minor sport (similar to archery) should not be the best thing women have ever done in sports. Why is beating the men so much more important than every other measure, such that a bowling game (not even a perfect game) becomes the best women's moment ever? Women have been playing sports for decades and have not failed to provide a long list of awesome, inspirational moments. They have excelled, overcome pain and adversity, fought for their pride in themselves and their countries. Unless I missed something, the ultimate goal for female athletes isn't to play professional football better (or run faster sprints or throw farther) than men. During the Olympics, we should all remember that the goal of sports is to be all you can be, to go "swifter, higher, stronger" than you have before. This is why even the athletes who have never been within 10 seconds of Michael Phelps compete, so that they can do better than they have before, and can represent themselves, their team, and their country proudly. Lisa Leslie's dunk was memorable because female athletes typically can't, not because she was dunking as well as the guys. Even the average sports fan recognizes these other events more than a victory over the guys in bowling. To say that Kelly Kulick's victory is the greatest moment in women's sports history is to insult just about everyone.

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